11/14/2017 13:42 EST | Updated 11/14/2017 17:01 EST

As Roy Moore scandal churns, a Democrat gets out of the way

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — If you ask Doug Jones, there's no political scandal in Alabama.

Jones, the Democratic Senate candidate whose fortunes have been dramatically boosted by allegations of sexual conduct against his Republican opponent, says he's barely paying attention to what's happening "over there."

"We're going to stay in our lane," Jones told reporters gathered on a Birmingham street corner on Tuesday.

Like Democrats nationwide, Jones has adopted a fierce, keep-your-head-down strategy as scandal reshapes Alabama's Dec. 12 special Senate election and gives Democrats hope — albeit a distant one — of claiming the Senate majority next year. While Republican Roy Moore faces extraordinary pressure from national Republicans to quit the race, Democrats are following one of the oldest rules in the political playbook: When your opponent is imploding, get out of the way.

"There's still a lot of uncertainty with what's going on right now," Jones said Tuesday after a fourth consecutive question about Moore's struggle. "We're going to let that play out over there."

In Alabama and across Washington, Democrats were more than happy to let Republican criticism of Moore drive the day. Republican after Republican has piled on, calling on Moore to quit the race and make room for a write-in candidate. Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose appointment to the Trump cabinet opened the Senate seat, said he has no reason to doubt the allegations that Moore sexually assaulted a teenager decades ago.

In almost any other state, it's the sort of accusation that would likely be enough to propel the Democrat to certain victory. Yet in deep-red Alabama, a state that hasn't sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in a quarter century, a final-month bombshell has only ensured that the race will be close.

Jones' path to victory is not easy, says Republican pollster Chris Wilson.

"Democrats have to turn out at record numbers, which you don't often see in Alabama because there's never any belief that the Democrat can win," Wilson said. "Even heightened Democratic turnout is probably not enough. You need to have Republicans vote for the Democrat."

Democrats need to focus on college-educated Republicans in the suburbs around Montgomery, Birmingham and Mobile, Wilson said, in addition to maximizing African-American turnout. Democrats are also crossing their fingers that many Republicans, disgusted with Moore, simply stay home on Election Day.

Jones' team has long recognized the need to win over Republicans. He has touted his working-class upbringing and his family's ties to Birmingham's decimated steel industry. He hammers away on "kitchen-table" issues, trying to counter Trump's economic populism.

On Tuesday, he released a new campaign ad highlighting his appeal among the other party without directly mentioning Moore's latest challenges.

"I'm a Republican, but Roy Moore, no way," says one man in the ad. A woman adds, "Don't decency and integrity matter anymore?"

Jones, a former U.S. attorney under President Bill Clinton, had little interest in reminding Alabama voters of his party affiliation. He cast himself as "an independent voice" on Tuesday. And he refused to answer a question about whether he would support Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as majority leader if his party reclaimed the Senate majority next year.

Alabama's Senate contest does have significant national implications, however.

A Jones victory would narrow GOP control of the Senate to 51-49 and, for the first time, open a plausible path for Democrats to reclaim the chamber in next year's midterm elections. The odds are stacked against Democrats, who must defending 10 seats in states carried by Trump last year. The only Republican-held seats considered vulnerable to changing hands are Arizona and Nevada.

A Jones win would allow Democrats, if they were to run the table next year, to flip the Senate back.

Just don't ask Democrats in Washington if their party will benefit from Moore's struggles.

"It's an Alabama race run from, by, and for Alabama," charged Schumer when asked what Washington Democrats are doing to help Jones.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat facing his own tough re-election in a red state, had little interest in nationalizing the race either: "He's probably a proud Alabama Democrat and he sure as hell is not going to be a Washington Democrat." Manchin added, "He'll run his own race down there."

National Democrats are quietly helping, however.

Outside groups, including the Senate Democrats' campaign arm and the unaffiliated organization, Indivisible, have had paid staff on the ground to help drive voter turnout. National Democrats also have a joint fundraising committee with Jones to help him raise money. The Jones campaign had a 2-to-1 cash advantage over Moore at the end of September, weeks before the scandal, according to federal filings.

Jones insists the special election will be decided by real issues like jobs and the economy.

"This is the way I see it — the way I've always seen it," he said. "Nothing in the last four of five days has changed that."


Taylor reported from Washington.